THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CAN HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS?”

No, we are not having fun at your expense. There really is a film called “Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” and it is a musical from 1969 that was released by Universal Pictures. This film was conceived, written and directed by Anthony Newley, who also took the starring role and cast his then-wife Joan Collins, their children and Milton Berle. Oh, and it was an X-rated film.

Clearly inspired by Fellini’s “8½” “Heironymous Merkin” is a surreal emotional inventory check of a burned-out creative artist taking stock of his unusual life. But whereas Fellini masterfully mixed surreal imagery with inspired madness, Anthony Newley runs amok with smutty gags, obscure humor, terrible songs and a sense of overstuffed self-importance. The audience doesn’t watch this film; instead, the audience is literally assaulted by its ridiculous and shameless explosions of bad taste and bad sense.

Newley’s Heironymous Merkin is a just-turned-40 performer who is building a museum to himself. The film opens along the seashore as Merkin addresses an audience consisting of his mother and his daughters Thumbelina and Thaxted (Newley’s real-life kids) regarding his plans. He then unfolds his own life story through a series of stories which may or may not be true. The most outlandish of these finds Merkin (dressed like a marionette, complete with strings and whiteface make-up) learning the act of entertainment from Uncle Limelight, a music hall performer played by veteran British funnyman Bruce Forsyth. Uncle Limelight’s trademark song is “Picadilly Lilly” and Forsyth goes to town with a no-holds-barred knockout performance which could’ve earned him an Oscar nomination if the sequence was part of a better film. Sadly, Newley keeps interrupting Forsyth’s work with irrelevant shots of himself squealing and clapping like a happy marionette.

The rest of the film is a mind-boggling hodgepodge relating to Merkin’s ascent to manhood, his discovery and expertise at sex, and his career trajectory as managed by one Goodtime Eddie Filth, a devil-in-disguise played by a clearly embarrassed Milton Berle. Haunting Merkin throughout the film is a man in a white suit known as the presence and played by the ancient comic George Jessel, who spits out creaky jokes which have nothing to do with the film. Every now and then, the action is interrupted by a group of producers and writers in a movie sound studio who are constantly complaining about the story’s lack of coherence. If you look closely, you can find veteran comic Stubby Kaye in the mix, but he is given nothing funny to say.

As a love letter to himself, Newley created a bloated ego trip that expires immediately. The absurdity of having himself cast as a rabid ladies’ man is painful to endure, as well as his misogyny to his conquests. In the course of the film, he beds the likes of the eponymous Mercy Humppe, the charming Filigree Fondle, the dramatic Trampolina Whambang (with whom he stages a naughty show called “The Princess and the Donkey”) and the sultry Polyester Poontang. The last woman is played by Joan Collins, who looks stunning but is forced to sing something called “Chalk and Cheese” while Newley cavorts naked. I am not certain which is worse: Anthony Newley naked or Joan Collins singing.

Newley is such an obnoxious man that it is impossible to laugh even at the film’s most preposterous sight gags (Newley wearing oversized Elton John-style sunglasses, Newley dressed as a harlequin singing a love song on a carousel). Complicating matters is his ego, especially when someone else tries to get a bit of screen time to shine. Milton Berle especially tries hard to grin and grimace a cheap laugh, but Newley ruthlessly cuts away from Uncle Miltie whenever his scene stealing becomes obvious.

“Heironymous Merkin” was a disaster on every possible level and Newley’s career never truly recovered from it. He somehow directed one more film, the obscure 1971 “Summertree,” but within a few years of “Heironymous Merkin” he was relegated to making guest appearances on “Hollywood Squares.” The film sank quickly from sight and was forgotten by all but a few die-hard masochists with a taste for lunacy.

“Heironymous Merkin” turned up on cable television a few years ago, but minus 15 minutes of footage (including three songs). This version is the one that can be found on bootlegs circulating across the Internet. The full-length film has been kept out of sight ever since its disastrous 1969 theatrical engagement and, to date, no effort has been made to officially release it on home video.
Oh, to answer the title question: “Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” The answer: who cares?

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 2, 2004 in Features by
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